By Gary Pettus
January 2023

A look at special people and places in Mississippi.

In a milestone for the years-long Asylum Hill Project, a team of archaeologists began exhuming human remains last fall on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Their work commenced in November on a section of land holding the graves of thousands of people who were residents of the vanished State Hospital for the Insane which operated for 80 years on what is now Medical Center ground.

It’s a major phase in the ongoing mission to unearth, study, and respectfully memorialize those asylum patients whose bodies were never claimed, as UMMC officials map out an ethical way to reclaim the burial site for potential land development.

Equipment used to remove the remains includes a track hoe, which has a digging arm. Its operator carefully scrapes away the top layer of soil over the burial ground, just inches at a time, until the soil’s appearance changes, indicating the presence of interments beneath.

“The contractor, who is from Mississippi, specializes in this type of archaeological machine excavation,” said Dr. Jennifer Mack, lead bioarchaeologist for the undertaking.

A team of several archaeologists, including Mack and scholars drawn from locations such as Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast will do the rest by shovel and hand.

Also clearing the way for the excavations was the removal of trees over an approximately four-acre section of the project area.

The project includes plans for tree replanting. The types of replacement trees will be based on the inventory documented by Lida Gibson, the assessment and research coordinator for Asylum Hill.

As work proceeds, the experts cannot be sure how deep the graves lie. Thanks to geophysical surveys and other means, they have been able to estimate that as many as 7,000 graves constitute the asylum cemetery. The first coffin discovered, in late 2012, was about one foot deep.

Mack estimates that the ones about to be uncovered will be four or five feet down.

Originally named the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, the institution served about 30,000 patients between 1855 and 1935. The thousands of residents who died were buried with wooden markers which deteriorated and disappeared over time.

A list of asylum patients who were buried in the cemetery between 1912 and 1935 is available; but, without markers, no one knows exactly where each one lies.

In July, Mack and Gibson held a virtual seminar to inform UMMC employees about the archaeological work funded, so far, by $3.7 million from the State Legislature. In addressing some misconceptions, they said:

  • There is no reason to think that the asylum dead were buried in mass graves. Ground-penetrating radar and other means have revealed the presence of individual grave shafts.
  • There is no risk of biohazard contamination.
  • The graves will not be bulldozed.

“As we excavate, we are also looking at coffin materials, personal items such as buttons and pins,” Mack said during the presentation. “They will be documented; each item could potentially help narrow down a burial date, and could therefore help with identification.”

They will gather osteo-biographical sketches as well: age, sex, ancestry, height, past illness, trauma, etc. Those details can help whittle down the list of candidates for potential identification.

This will allow us to tell a person’s story. Even if no name is found, we can rescue the individual from the anonymity imposed by the grave.

— Mack said.

Gibson has been in contact with about 150 descendants of patients. They have been kept abreast of Asylum Hill’s progress and have been invited to participate in virtual question-and-answer sessions about the excavations and to contribute oral histories and other information through the project’s website.

Many of the patients committed to the asylum may not have had a mental illness, Gibson said. “What was considered mental illness then is not always considered mental illness today. Some of those conditions are treatable now.”

Why would a family not claim a body? Transportation and communication were issues, Mack said. Documentation shows that hospital officials tried to contact families, but there was no refrigeration then. So, they were buried, if not claimed, within 24 hours.

So far, 66 graves have been excavated – those uncovered after a construction crew discovered a single pine coffin a decade ago.

It may take five to seven years to disinter the remaining thousands and accomplish other aims. Another goal, when funding becomes available, is to create a memorial and laboratory that will serve as a permanent resting place for those who could not be positively identified and returned to their families for reburial.

Those buried represent every county in the state; at least half are African Americans, Mack said.

“We continue to work with a community advisory board, answering people’s questions about their ancestors. This process truly serves the people all over Mississippi.”

Gary Pettus is a writer-editor in the public affairs department at UMMC.

Dustin Clarke, left, crew chief, and Dr. Jennifer Mack, lead bioarchaeologist, survey a section of land cleared of trees in September, a prelude to excavation work for the Asylum Hill Project at UMMC.

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